Pros: Good internet, multiple show DVR recording and playback options
Cons: Occasionally unreliable; other minor issues
When I bought my HD-TV a year ago, I decided it was finally time to break down and get digital cable service. I had been resisting for many reasons, but I wanted to get HD service to go with my new TV. Originally, I was just going to go with my cable company's packages, but a friend of mine had AT&T U-Verse, so I decided to look into it. And it was worth looking into because it's been a good service.
What It Is
AT&T U-Verse is their attempt to break into the digital communication medium in a big way. You can bundle television, internet, and telephone services onto one bill. By combining them, you can also theoretically save money. Since everyone offers similar prices, it isn't much, but in my case I did save a few bucks a month, enough that I was willing to give them a try.
My neighborhood must have been one of the first places in the country to get U-Verse because I had been getting door to door salesmen stopping by for at least a year before I signed up offering me a great new deal on my phone service. Only when I said it sounded great did I find out I was agreeing to change my TV service, too. That left a very bad taste in my mouth, but I decided to swallow it and try out the service.
I was told that installation could take up to 5 hours. But the guy who did the install was in and out in under two hours. Of course, since I live in a condo, I have a feeling that the major work had already been done to get the wires into my building.
Let's get the easy one out of the way first. The service is Voice Over Internet Protocol, a fancy way of saying your phone goes through your modem and not through your phone lines any more. It's supposed to be clearer. I didn't sign up for the phone service (in fact, I canceled my home phone completely about this time), so I can't talk about it. Really, this is the only optional part of the U-Verse service. If you sign up, you have to get the other two.
I had been using AT&T's internet for a few years before this, just with my old phone line. As before, I am getting wireless internet, just with a new modem.
There are currently five speeds you can choose from. Being on a budget, I went with Express, the cheapest of the lot. On that one, I can download at 1.5 mbps and upload a 1 mbps. I was told it was actually an upgrade on the service I had before. If so, I haven't noticed a huge difference. Not to say that the service is bad. My roommates and I have all been on at the same time and pages load no problem. For my purposes, this service is all I need.
Now comes the big deal, at least for me. How is the television service? With the exception of a couple minor glitches, I have been very happy with it. And since I am something of a TV addict, that is saying something.
There are four levels of television offered, each at a slightly higher price. The basic package comes with around 100 channels, including your local stations. I went with the U200 package which includes around 200 channels. This is everything you'd want if you were a cable subscriber before. One reason I went with U-Verse over my cable company is because I would have needed about four packages to get all these channels. And it was nice to see these channels again since my cable company had started taking them away from me over the last couple of years. If you want more channels, there are the U300 and U400 packages. The main things you get with these levels are Showtime, Starz, and Encore (U300) or tons of sports channels and HBO (U400).
To get HD channels, you have to pay an additional $10 a month. I was able to get the fee waved for the first year as a sign up bonus. While I started out with only about 15 HD channels, they have been quietly adding to the line up all year. Unfortunately, they don't tell me when I get a new channel; I have to find it accidentally. That's one of my big beefs with the service, actually. But I am now getting everything I normally watch in HD, and I wasn't before. Since this is my first HD service, I can't compare, but the pictures look sharp and the sound comes through in full surround. I'm very happy with it.
All packages at the U200 level or higher come with DVR service. This was another big selling point for me. The main TV (defined as the one that hooks up to the modem that controls your entire U-Verse network) is your DVR. You can use it to set what you want to record and erase what you have watched. I am able to record up to four programs at the same time, two of them in HD. Of course, the quality isn't quite as good if you have everything going, but you can at least watch them. Also, if you are watching live TV on any TV, that counts as one of your four programs, so if you have multiple TV's, you do loose a little of that freedom. The main box also keeps a couple hours of the current TV channel in memory, allowing you to pause, rewind, or fast forward live TV. The instant you change the channel, you loose what you just had. But it is nice if you are watching something and the phone rings, for example. You can record up to 133 hours of standard TV or 37 hours of HD TV.
But what really excites me is the change they made in the fall. I am now able to watch recorded programs on any TV in the house. Every TV needs to have one of their boxes to get the U-Verse signal, but that also means it is connected to the network. You can not pause live TV on your other TV's or set or delete recordings. Still, it is nice to be able to watch something I recorded in my bedroom while my roommates are enjoying the main TV.
Since your internet and TV are connected, you can log into your account from any computer and set or delete your recordings over the internet. I love this feature since I can program something that is on during the day from work if I forgot to do it the night before.
And, of course, you've got Pay-per-view, Video on Demand, and music channels. Honestly, I haven't used these features, but they are there if they matter to you.
Observations on the Service
Since I have several friends with the service, I am going to combine some of their experiences with my own as I talk about how the service works.
I have found that the DVR occasionally doesn't record something. I know it has happened to me three times in the last year with the second recording per week of Dancing with the Stars. It has been very annoying, especially since I blog the show for a friend's site. In these cases, the episode was schedule to record, but it didn't at the last second for some unknown reason.
I have also had problems with recording shows from the USA Network. If I tell the DVR to record "All New Episodes," it will only record about half of them if I don't double check. As a result, I have to tell it to record all episodes, new and repeats, that air around a certain time. Even then, it seems to think that 7AM is close to 7PM, so at times it schedules every time that show is on. It's easy enough to go in and tell it not to record certain episodes, but it is annoying. Since it only happens with this one channel, I am wondering if it is some miscommunication between that network and the feeds for the service, but I don't know for sure.
When you schedule something to record, the DVR automatically starts recording one minute before the scheduled time and records three minutes after. This is nice most of the time in case the show starts or ends a little off the hour. However, if you are recording two HD shows at one hour and a third HD show the next hour, those four minutes of overlap create a conflict, so the shows won't record.
My brother in Texas has this service as well. While he is happy with it now and it seems to be working, the first few months he had it, it would go out at least once a week. AT&T finally had to install new cables into his neighborhood before it would work right. In the mean time, it was an on-going saga for at least two months trying to get it to work right.
My brother can record two HD shows at the same time, as can I. My friends across town, however, are still only able to record one HD show at a time. My service was upgraded this last summer to include the two shows at once feature, so I'm guessing that his neighborhood needs better cables to handle the added content.
Is AT&T's U-Verse perfect? No, there are some drawbacks. But the service and price certainly rival my local cable company who I wasn't completely happy with before the switch. Until someone comes along with a significantly better product, I see no reason to leave this company.